slow violence: rethinking the size and shape of ahimsa

kathryn flynn ahimsa intelligent edge yoga

A life devoted to yoga still has space for anger and bottomed-out reactivity. There are some situations where mindfulness seems to sneak off for a mini-break to vacation in the ether and tempers are lost. These can be sobering moments where all resources and carefully cultivated tools fail, and it feels as if you get sucked into an internal whirlwind of baser instincts. No one does this to us quite like strained family relations, where even after years of practicing active listening and personal growth you still want to reach across the Thanksgiving dinner table to slap a contentious cousin. Maybe it’s a heated debate with a partner about money, or too many unexpected inconveniences all pile up in one stressful moment – and then all of a sudden – BANG! You’ve shouted a curse word at the dog toy that tripped you and you’re staring down the dog like he meant to leave it there just to fuck with you.

These moments are easy to identify and learn from: in one clear moment, our “ahimsa” – the first facet of the Yamas that compel us to compassion and kindness in all moments – is markedly absent. It is mini-breaking.

These big, angry moments constitute the easier work of ahimsa. The greater challenge of continuous kindness in small behaviors creates a more nuanced, compassionate life, but it requires that we explore difficult behavior we may not describe as “violent”.

As Nischala Joy Devi writes in The Secret Power of Yoga, by translating ahimsa as “non-violent”, “it implies that we are ‘inherently’ violent and that mischief may be lurking somewhere in the background of our minds”.

I’ve long appreciated Devi’s treatment of the Yamas and Niyamas, which she phrases to resonate as positive affirmations – a list of do’s without the don’ts. A different sort of philosopher however, sheds some light on how we can conceptualize little contributions of meanness and disengagement to form a big hurt.

Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson & Elizabeth Ritzmann Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his work came to my attention during graduate school. At the time, he was working on his since published book “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor”. Nixon’s premise is that environmental disasters and the “ugly spillages of total warfare” (including landmines and the lingering effects of chemical warfare), earn no sense of urgency or attention from the media and population, because we are only attuned to violence that is spatially spectacular, temporally brief, and geographically specific. He uses his concept of “slow violence” to give shape, meaning, and a narrative to slower, more insidious forms of pollution and create dialogue with the intention of rousing the public to action.

In other words, we only think of “violence” when it’s big, loud, and scary. The translation falls short for our personal work, because we can easily separate ourselves from that sort of behavior.

It’s an excellent framework for examining the dynamics of relationships. If you’re the partner who forgets an anniversary, a work colleague that cuts down a peer in a heated debate, or a friend who chooses not to attend a birthday party – these are all significant hurts that are easily identifiable and rectifiable. They produce sufficient reflection and guilt to prompt an apology and a future awareness for approaching the situation differently.

The small behaviors – consistently neglecting to ask about your partner’s well-being, creating a culture of complaint at work, or re-directing conversation with friends back to yourself – can accumulate over time in a way that creates a polluted environment. A negative culture shapes expectations – and how draining and demoralizing it is to expect to be let down by the very people you should be relying on to build each other up!

The small actions of shame, blame, and disrespect coagulate into behavioral patterns, where we've learned we can't come forward with certain information or try new things for fear of being ridiculed - our isolation grows and disconnection grows. What's so disheartening is that these feelings of isolation and vulnerability are commonalities. As Brene Brown developed the Shame Resilience Theory, where we form relationships based on mutual needs and that to reach out for support, we may receive empathy, which is incompatible with shame and judgment. We need to trust that reaching out will be met with empathy, and so we must cultivate listening emphatically to be a safe, supportive confidant.

We thrive on positivity – as Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage shares in his popular TED Talk, “If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.”

Achor is more interested in work performance, but it’s obvious that personal relationships benefit equally from intelligence, energy, and creativity – it’s essential for all the behaviors that bond us (communication, sex, hobbies) and challenge us (raising children, caring for aging parents, and household coordination).

If we can commit to compassion, kindness, and positivity in all that we do, and root out the little actions that deplete ourselves and those we love, we’ll be happier, healthier yogis. After all, it’s the small behaviors that ultimately shape your character and your life. Coastlines and cliffs are formed not by the occasional swell – they are formed by the continuous flows of the tide.